Remember that Bob Marley Snapchat Filter Fiasco??
Things happened that meant this didn’t get published…but it doesn’t mean the issues aren’t important or that something similar won’t happen again.
We’re living in outrageous times. In mid-April, four hundred refugees drowned in a single incident. There’s the Panama Papers. Flint. Homs. Trump. It could go on and on. Then, on April 20, on what should have been a pretty chill day given its ganja-related status, Snapchat released its high-tech, no-make-up-necessary blackface filter. Oh yes, and as Wired points out, it was bad.
In honour of America’s unofficial marijuana day, Snapchat released their Bob Marley filter, which invites anyone to try on the singer’s beloved Black face, complete with tam and locks. Kylie Jenner was among the early adopters.
In these outrageous times, the stages were predicable. First, outrage against Snapchat and the requisite hot takes, each asking “how could this possibly have happened?” Then, articles were updated to include a comment from Snapchat, predictably passing the buck: “The lens we launched today was created in partnership with the Bob Marley Estate, and gives people a new way to share their appreciation for Bob Marley and his music.” All the more outrage! Bob Marley’s rebel music legacy cheapened and pimped by his own estate.
Remember Bamboozled? That Spike Lee film from 2000 where a Black tv executive pitches a “new millenium minstrel show” to his unapologetically and blatantly racist, AAVE-speaking white manager who “grew up with Black people”? Doesn’t it feel like SnapChat is pulling a Bamboozled? Also, do an image search on this SnapChat Marley filter. The creepily resonant thing about Bamboozled is that the “new millennium minstrel show” was a runaway hit.
Something similar happened just last week when Buzzfeed, whose name leaves no doubt about their nakedly viral aspirations, posted the now infamous “27 Questions Black People Have For Black People” video. In case you missed it, though it’s doubtful you did, the video is just under three minutes of what might have been more appropriately titled: “A Video to Make White People Feel Better About Racist Questions they Might Have for Black People”. Much like in the Snapchat case, some replied to the resulting outcry by pointing out that the two creators were Black.
It’s a tough one to get around. So much so, that in the aftermath of the incident, there was much discussion about how diverse (or not diverse) Buzzfeed’s staff was. More than a few folks took to twitter to suggest that Black staffers at Buzzfeed resign in light of the problematic video. In the Snapchat case too, Black staffers were specifically taken to task. The Guardian commented, “Even if there is only one black person in the Snapchat office — not that people are numbers! — that sole black person ought to be able to speak his or her mind.”
Comments like this seem to suggest that responsibility for these egregious decisions lie not with the organizations involved, but with individual people. Additionally, the scapegoating of the apparently prophylactic Black people in the room/office/creative team is always the natural end of the “but Black people were involved” or “my Black friend is okay with it” approach. This places the onus on Black people to solve the problem of anti-Black racism. If Black staffers need to represent in order to prevent organisations from releasing racist content, isn’t there a deeper problem? Isn’t all this, “who made it? Is their “Black card” valid?” besides the point? Doesn’t it collapse the complexity of systemic racism into more convenient individual racism? Does it not make racism an affliction suffered by someone else- “the uneducated”, “Trump voters”, the police force, assholes? Does it not ensure that the rest of us decent folk can tweet our witty condemnations and wash our hands clean before dinner? Until the next occasion for outrage anyway, when we do it all again.
Is it possible then, that in these outrageous times, outrage is not what is needed? Maybe it is time for the un-sexy, non-buzz-feeding and deeply sobering realisation that there is no boogey man pulling the strings, making all this bad stuff happen. It’s not the Marley Estate, or Snapchat, or Buzzfeed, or Ben Carson, or even Trump, it’s worse and far more pedestrian.
Rather than use the “my Black Estate representative was okay with it” line, or expect that Black employees be responsible for keeping in check the potentially racist behaviour of media organizations — social and otherwise — can we not recognize that these things keep happening because white supremacy is a systemic problem. That’s the thing about racism, it does tend to be systemic. Not that system over there either, this system here. And if it’s ever going to change, we need to start asking what we are going to do about that.